The Asianist

Balanced and fact-based analysis of Asian affairs

The One Where A Burmese Diplomat Got Surprisingly Candid

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Image from Cyclone Nargis which devastated Burma in May 2008.

The Burmese regime, by most accounts, is ruthless, xenophobic, and hermetic. Yet at an event I attended last month organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Southeast Asia program, I witnessed a remarkably different face from the Burmese diplomats in attendance, which, I then suspected and have since subsequently confirmed, is a rare sight.

The on-the-record event was supposed to be on humanitarian assistance in Burma, with two individuals (Thet Win from U.S. Collection, Humanitarian Corps and Vaughan Turekian from the American Association for the Advancement of Science) sharing their experiences from recent missions there and the rest of us huddled around a mid-sized table. As a few of us were exchanging pleasantries and cards before the event, three suit-clad men filed in.

It was only in the middle of the talk, when one of the presenters, Mr. Thet Win, said he was “pleasantly surprised” to see Burmese embassy representatives present, that I realized who they were. My eyebrows immediately rose. I’ve attended my fair share of these DC events, but I had never seen one, much less three, Burmese embassy representatives (nor have several others I have spoken to). That alone was remarkable. The talk continued, and both presenters seemed to be emphasizing either that removing the politics in a frayed relationship like between U.S. and Burma could make other kinds of technical and scientific cooperation possible (Mr. Turekian), or that engagement would be a better approach than isolation and sanctions (Mr. Thet Win).

The climax was when one of the CSIS staff invited the Burmese Embassy’s First Secretary to comment on the proceedings if he so wished. I don’t think most people expected much other than a flowery thank you message from a member of the usually rigid and tight-lipped Burmese embassy. But the First Secretary gave a 12 minute-long speech (I monitored and recorded it in my notes), which, Mr. Thet Win, who I imagine has had a lot of interaction with Burmese diplomats previously, himself noted as “the longest public speech I have ever heard from a Burmese official”.

More fascinating then the length of the speech, though, was the content and how candid he was about it. He outlined how engagement and technical cooperation were important, and did include the spiel about how pleased he was at these missions and how willing Burma was to respond to these initiatives. But he also admitted that “we have our own problems”, “especially in the area of education”, and went on to dwell on the fact that while Rangoon University was Southeast Asia’s premier institution in the 1940s and 1950s, the level of education had deteriorated since then to deplorable levels. He even cited specific details. It seemed like an honest assessment of his country and a genuine request for aid and cooperation.

Now, the behavior of a diplomat at one forum should not be used to generalize about the nature of the Burmese regime or provide a rationalization for its actions. But it was a rare window into what Burmese diplomats may be thinking, and a refreshing one to the extent that at least one of them acknowledges what most who study the country have long known: that the promise of Burma following decolonization was squandered in the decades that followed, whether in agriculture or education.

Responding to the surprise at many of the participants at his candor, the First Secretary said he had initially been apprehensive about attending the event, fearing a series of condemnations about his country. I’m glad he eventually did, and I hope the Burmese embassy continues to do so in the future. It may not result in groundbreaking changes in the situation inside Burma or in its relationship with the United States, but it will at least provide those of us who care about Asia with some idea as to what the Burmese themselves are thinking, no matter how much we may disagree. Hearing a Burmese diplomat speak so candidly ought not to be such a rarity.

Picture: Cyclonenargisfund.com

*NOTE: The use of Burma as opposed to Myanmar is based on personal preference, and is not meant as a political statement.

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